As the title character in the musical “Amélie,” a lonely young woman spreading warmth and doing good deeds even as she remains cocooned in isolation, the wonderful Phillipa Soo radiates her own brand of soulful magic. With her bright, pure soprano, and a face so expressive it might almost be a glowing high-definition television screen, Soo almost single-handedly transforms this sugar-rich, gossamer adaptation of the popular French movie into an emotionally rewarding evening.
The musical, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, retains all of the madcap diversions of the 2001 movie. Anyone allergic to whimsy will want to give the theater a wide berth — a few blocks at least — while “Amélie” is in residence. Aside from the protagonist, the characters are all card-carrying eccentrics, and we are treated to both a singing goldfish and a singing garden gnome, among other surrealities.
But the show, with a book by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel Messé (of the indie folk-rock band Hem) and lyrics by Messé and Nathan Tysen, does not condescend to the material, instead choosing to embrace its assorted oddities full-heartedly, even adding some of its own, such as a cameo appearance by a doppelganger for Elton John. And the creators, who include the director Pam MacKinnon, tease out the moving philosophical core of the fable-like narrative, the notion that by guiding others toward happiness we may find a path to our own.
As in the movie, the opening scenes establish the childhood trials that shape Amélie’s character. As a young girl (Savvy Crawford, nicely underplaying the pathos), she is saddled with, yes, eccentric parents: a doctor father who recoils at touching her and a mother more interested in Zeno’s paradox than nurturing her child. Upon her mother’s freak-accident death, her father turns for solace to that garden gnome — ooh la la, ze zany French! — and Amélie is left to make her way in the world.
Also as in the movie, the story proceeds as a labyrinth of intertwining stories, which can make for some slackening moments. As we flit from byway to subplot and back again, “Amélie” sometimes comes to resemble a carousel ride that threatens never to stop, with characters whizzing by only to disappear or fade into the background. The substantial population of supporting players means that none acquires any emotional depth to accompany their surface quirks.
Nevertheless they are drawn and played with sharp vigor. The café where the grown Amélie finds work in Paris is home to the hypochondriac Georgette (Alyse Alan Louis, sniffing and sniveling ripely); the closed-off Gina (Maria-Christina Oliveras), who is still mourning the husband that got away; Joseph (Paul Whitty, growling and huffing), Gina’s obsessive would-be paramour; and Suzanne (a brisk Harriett D. Foy), the café’s owner, neurosis-free but prone to maternal wisdom. In one of the more obvious moral-pointing lines, she tells us her credo: “If I want to feel better, I help somebody else, it’s not complicated.”
That lesson might have been better left for us to discover through Amélie’s ministrations. Taking Suzanne’s cue, she sets about improving the lives of virtually everyone she meets. First she restores a long-forgotten box of childhood mementos to a stranger, Bretodeau (Manoel Felciano), who promptly decides to reconnect with his estranged family. She befriends the elderly painter Dufayel (Tony Sheldon), who has been copying the same Renoir for years. And, of course, Amélie finds her own object of obsession: the oddball Nino, played with a sweet, palpitating anxiousness by Adam Chanler-Berat, whose hobby is collecting discarded photographs.
This collage of misfits and their misfortunes is set to gentle, lilting music-box melodies that stitch together the storyline’s many seams. Messé’s music has been handsomely orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin, and the ever-energetic musical direction of Kimberly Grigsby brings out the spare but still sumptuous playing of the small orchestra. Aside from the bright comic fizz of the fantasy sequence in which Amélie dreams of being eulogized as a saintly do-gooder by that rock star (Randy Blair, preening with gusto in oversized glasses and a glitzy suit), the score largely eschews discrete set pieces in favor of a more mellow, unified texture. It hums and croons instead of belting and strutting. (The lyrics, I’m afraid, are mostly workmanlike.)
MacKinnon’s status as a relative newcomer to musicals reveals itself in the somewhat cramped staging. David Zinn’s set, which features slanted piles of armoires piled up helter-skelter, and an arching metal bridge, confines most of the action to a small space at center stage. The design is a little too busy and oppressive for a musical about a young woman learning to open her heart to the wider world.
Fortunately, front and center for most of the musical’s modest duration is the luminous Soo. (At 100 minutes without intermission, this is the rare musicalized movie that’s shorter than its source.) A Tony nominee for “Hamilton,” and one of the original stars of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” Soo can hardly be called a revelation.
Nevertheless, what she achieves here outshines even her fine work in those musicals, because if there is a single ingredient “Amélie” is most sorely in need of, it is a firm grounding in accessible emotional truth. With a forced or spuriously cute performance in the central role, the show would collapse under the weight of its kitsch.
But while she inhabits the show’s fantasy-land vision of Paris with ease, gamely dressing as a nun, and even (egad!) impersonating Zorro at one point, Soo makes Amélie a conflicted, believably vulnerable young woman. At first safe in the stilled waters of her circumscribed life, Amélie eventually slips into the stream of the world, as her reserve dissolves when she sees others’ fortunes changed by a touch of her hand. Soo makes this transformation both honest and touching. We leave Amélie with her head still full of happy dreams, but her feet firmly planted on the ground. █